Three Qualities of Successful Student Collaboration

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student collaborationA classroom environment that allows for collaborative grouping produces significant learning gains. Larissa Pahomov, author of the book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, identifies the following three qualities of successful student collaboration (pp. 64-68). Successful collaborations are:

  1. Documented: Successful collaborations require that the contributions of each member be documented. Far too often great ideas come from collaboration and are lost because they were not documented. Assigning a student the role of scribe will help provide a record of the work being done.
  2. Asynchronous: Successful collaborations require times of group work and times of individual work. Both are critical to the collaborative process.
  3. Classroom-based: Successful collaborations require face-to-face interaction. As much as we rely on technology to make our lives more efficient, it is not an effective replacement for person-to-person time that leads to creativity and problem solving.

Collaboration requires considerable planning if it is to produce significant results. When you plan for collaborative time in your classroom, keep in mind that students need face-to-face time, time away from each other in the process, and documentation of the contributions made by group members. Your students will benefit from your work and will learn and grown together.

Student Collaboration in Inquiry-based Learning

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collaborationStudent collaboration is a powerful tool for learning.  Larissa Pahomov, author of the book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, provides the following framework for student collaboration in the classroom (pp. 68-78):

  1. Spend time on the set-up. Planning is essential to successful student collaboration. Establish ground rules and protocols for student collaboration and review them regularly.
  2. Model collaboration on a daily basis.       Arrange the classroom so that students have the opportunity to work with one another in a collaborative manner a little each day.
  3. Monitor progress and allow students to police themselves. Keep your finger on the pulse of the groups, so that you know if they are functioning at a healthy level. Create opportunities for students to also monitor their own progress and share their concerns with group members or you.
  4. Connect beyond the classroom. Encourage students to meet outside of the classroom in face-to-face gatherings or in some electronic meeting form.

Keep this framework in mind as you plan for student collaboration in your classroom next week. You will find that students enjoy the collaborative environment and learn much!

Student Research in Inquiry-based Learning

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researchStudent research is a vital part of inquiry-based learning. Larissa Pahomov, author of the book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, identifies the following three qualities that must be present in student research if genuine inquiry and learning are to occur (pp. 42-46):

  1. Autonomy – Students need to have some choice in what they research, how they research, and how they share the results of their research.
  2. Activity – Students need to have a variety of activity levels throughout their research. They need opportunities to engage information, whether through text, image, or some performance medium.
  3. Metacognition – Students need the opportunity to look within themselves and reflect upon their own learning and growth throughout the inquiry process.

As you are planning for instruction, include opportunities for autonomy, activity, and metacognition. Students will engage content in meaningful ways and learn much. You will engage content in meaningful ways and learn much, too!

Questioning Is Only The Tip Of The Iceberg

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icebergOn the surface, inquiry appears to involve the asking of questions and the seeking of information from which to make some response. Larissa Pahomov, author of the book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, indicates that questioning is only “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to inquiry (p. 18). Pahomov indicates that inquiry in the classroom should also include:

  1. Choice – Choice is necessary for personal and educational fulfillment. Students should have some choice in the questions they pursue and in how they find answers, and one of those options should include technology.
  2. Personalization – While there has been a tremendous movement toward standardization in the educational environment, learning remains a very personal endeavor. In the inquiry process, students need the opportunity to personalize using whatever means may be available.
  3. Relevance – Students will gain the most from real experiences that can be translated into practical applications.
  4. Empowerment – Students need some sense of control in their learning environment. They need the freedom to explore their own questions and pursue knowledge that is both interesting and useful for their development.
  5. Care – Respect for students, for their interests, and for their abilities demonstrates care. When such respect is present, students are free to learn and grown.

As you are planning for next week, include choice, personalization, and relevance in your content. Empower your students to learn and demonstrate respect for them in the process. They will find much success and you will find much joy in your work.

Developing an Inquiry-based Classroom

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inquiry scrabbleI like the word authentic. It signifies something is genuine and real, something tangible and significant. In teaching, we should continually strive to create authentic experiences for our students, so they can connect the content they are studying with the real world they enter after school hours. Larissa Pahomov, author of the book Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry, provides a framework for developing an inquiry-based classroom. It is built on five core values:

  1. Inquiry – the desire to gain knowledge and skills
  2. Research – how well you can find what you need to know and apply it
  3. Collaboration – working with others to share and further knowledge and skills
  4. Presentation – knowing how to present your work in person or online
  5. Reflection – the ability to think about knowledge and skills and analyze performance in all areas

These five core values can be employed in concert to build an inquiry-based classroom. Begin thinking about how they are used in your classroom to help students interact with content at the highest levels.

Conditioning + Fundamentals + Unity = Success

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woodenIf you are a student of leadership or a fan of basketball, you may have heard of John Wooden. Wooden was a legendary college coach who guided the UCLA men’s basketball program to a record 10 NCAA National Championships. Because of his unprecedented success, people asked Wooden what made him and his teams so successful. He responded with the simple formula above. In Wooden’s mind, conditioning was the preparation necessary to finish the game as strong as it was started. Fundamentals focused on the basic skills that were vital for each player. (At the beginning of each season, Wooden taught his players the “right” way to put on socks. That’s how vital the basic skills were to him.) Unity represented the sacrificing of individual ego for the oneness of the team.

I believe the same simple formula that Wooden used throughout his entire coaching career can guide our teaching. Our conditioning entails being prepared for every minute of class, so that the very last minute of the very last class of the week is as productive as the first. Our fundamentals are those basic skills of instructional methods and assessment that are vital for each teacher. Unity reflects our ability to come together and work for the benefit of the students in the school. When we fully employ our conditioning, fundamentals, and unity, our students will succeed beyond our wildest imaginations, and we will be truly successful.

Developing Mentor Programs for New Teachers

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Educators, by and large, understand that students need to make connections and build relationships within the educational environment in order to enable achievement.  As such, schools develop peer-to-peer groups and student-teacher mentor programs to facilitate relationship-building.  The same need exists for teachers, especially those new to the profession.  The 2003 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) found that almost a third of new teachers leave the classroom after three years, and nearly 50% leave after five years (p. 26).  Recent studies have indicated that approximately 20% of teachers leave the profession within the first three years (Johnson, Musial, Hall, & Gollnick, 2011).  In a United States Department of Education survey of those who left in recent years, 49% of those leaving the profession cited job dissatisfaction or the desire to pursue another career (Archer, 1999).

To increase the chances of the new teacher remaining in the profession, he/she must make connections with other professionals and the community as a whole.  Therefore it is imperative that schools and districts establish teacher mentor programs that meet the needs of those new to the profession.  In order to be successful:

Mentors must be purposefully selected.  Every school contains three types of teachers: superstars, backbones, and mediocres (Whitaker, Whitaker, & Lumpa, 2000).  Your teacher mentors must come from the superstar ranks if you want your school to improve.  While backbones are hard workers and likely to do good things in the classroom, they might not always exhibit qualities that should be replicated.  New teachers are prone to imprinting, and what they observe their mentor doing they are likely to do.  It is best for the school, students, and new teachers if they imprint exceptionally high levels of effectiveness and professionalism from the first day of their teaching career.  Carefully select your best and most well respected teachers to be mentors.

Mentors must be trained.  Even though your mentors will be selected from the very best teachers in your building or corporation, they will not know instantly how to be a good mentor.  Your mentors must receive adequate training in order to be effective in their mentoring role.  Their training must be specific in its approach to the mentoring process, focusing on communication and collaboration.  Mentor training should also include an overview of novice teacher characteristics, discussion of mentor roles and responsibilities, guidelines for classroom visits, research on effective instruction, and a review of the stages of the mentor relationship (Heller & Sindelar, 1991).  Mentors must be comfortable with the program agenda and have the opportunities to ask questions of the program leader.  Mentors must have opportunities for collaboration with each other on a regular basis to keep themselves sharp and focused.

Mentoring programs must be deliberate.  They cannot be left to happenstance.  Mentor programs must be a scheduled priority for the school.  They programs must be highly organized and led by highly qualified staff members.  While a program may be led by an administrator, it is recommended that a respected teacher leader provide direction for the teacher mentor program.  Teachers, both experienced and novice, are more likely to embrace and fully commit to a program run by “one of their own” as opposed to one run by administrators.  The end result will be greater participation in the program by current faculty and new teachers, which ultimately will improve student achievement.

Mentoring programs must be research-based.  There exists a wealth of research regarding mentoring programs and the content which they stress.  Many states provide the programmatic direction, regulation, and funding necessary for the implementation and sustainability of new teacher mentor programs.  Additionally, professional organizations and teachers associations provide resources for new teacher induction programs.  A host of respected authors and researchers have written extensively on topics such as classroom management, instructional strategies, and assessment practices, all of which are needed by new professionals.  By employing such sources, the mentor program will model effective practice and empower the new teacher to positively impact student achievement.

Mentoring programs must be a scheduled priority.  Many schools offer one-day orientations for new faculty members and do very little thereafter.  An effective mentoring program must be planned to allow for collaboration between the new teacher and the mentor on a regular basis.  Schools that recognize this need for continued collaboration often allow professional release time for both the mentor and mentees on a monthly, per grading period, or semester basis.  Mentors are required to create an agenda for the meeting time and keep minutes of issues discussed.  The minutes are then returned to the mentor program director for review and archival.  This type of release time emphasizes the importance of mentoring, meets the documentation standards for professional development, strengthens the mentor-mentee relationship, and ultimately strengthens the new teacher and the school.

To further strengthen the new teacher connection to the community, many schools provide release time for mentors and mentees to have meetings in local restaurants, in business/corporate settings, or at the local library.  Business leaders often take time to address new teachers in these types of settings.  Additionally, some schools provide guided tours of the district, so that new teachers see for themselves the social and cultural diversity that will feed into their classrooms.  Teachers who have these kinds of first-hand experiences gain a better understanding of the community as a whole and increase the awareness of the significance of their role.

Principals with new teachers in the building frequently build the master schedule in such a way that it allows for common time – prep periods, lunches, etc. – for the mentor and mentee.  While these times are informal, they give daily opportunities for mentor-mentee collaboration further strengthening and supporting the development of the new teacher.

Mentoring programs must be relevant.  New teachers need to be strengthened by research-based best practices in classroom management, instructional strategies, and assessment, but that foundation will not be built upon if the new teacher is not educated regarding the practical matters of the school.  While your veterans know where to park, which doors are unlocked, where to get supplies, how to run the copy machine, how to use the attendance system, grading system, lunch schedule, referral system, etc., your new teachers have never experienced this.  The mentor program must address these day-to-day operations issues early and provide access to information about these types of things.  Many mentor programs incorporate the school faculty handbook and student handbook into their orientation programs, so that teachers will feel more comfortable with the daily happenings of the building.

Mentees must be met where they are.  New teachers enter the profession with course work related to pedagogy, assessment, classroom management, etc., but do not know everything there is to know about their new assignment.  Mentors must meet them “where they are” – at their current level of understanding.  Mentors must be sensitive to this aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship.  It is the mentor’s responsibility to gently shape the mentee’s knowledge base, but not crush the enthusiasm that is present.

Communicating with new teachers is of paramount importance and offers another way to meet them where they are.  Young professionals entering the profession are comfortable with and often prefer electronic communiqués in the form of emails or text messages.  To maintain the necessary levels of confidentiality and to meet the requirements established by many institutions, electronic communications should take place only via school approved accounts.  Bear in mind that these communications are often archived and available for viewing by the general public if so requested thanks to the Access to Public Records Acts many states have put into law.

Mentors, mentor programs, and mentees must be accountable.  A line of accountability related to improving student achievement must run through the mentors, the mentor program, and the mentees.  Mentors must be evaluated regularly and there must be evidence of their effectiveness.  The evaluation should contain documents provided by the mentor, such a agendas and minutes from meetings, examples of communication, etc. The mentor should have the opportunity to reflect as part of the evaluation, and the mentee should have the opportunity to offer confidential feedback regarding the process, as well.

Throughout the mentor program, teachers should document their professional growth as a result of partaking in the mentor program.  Documenting growth in the area of instructional methods could be as simple as showing lesson plans with a variety of methodologies included.  Growth in assessment effectiveness could be documented by showing the variety of assessments used in the classroom with students.  Similar documentation should cover classroom management and related issues.  The mentor should have the opportunity to provide the mentor program director confidential feedback regarding the mentee, and the mentee should have the opportunity to reflect as part of the evaluation.  Additionally, both the mentor and mentee should provide a reflection that details their vision for the continued professional growth of the new teacher.

Mentor programs as a whole should be evaluated by both the mentor and the mentee.  Both should provide confidential feedback regarding program leadership, direction, curriculum, and relevance.  The evaluation of the mentor program should include ratings sheets that are simple to score and open ended items that allow for free response.  The program director should receive the information, analyze it, and adjust accordingly.  School principals or superintendents should also receive the information and determine appropriate next steps for the continuation of the program, always seeking to positively impact student learning.



Johnson, J., Musial, D., Hall, G., & Gollnick, . (2011). Foundations of

        american education: perspectives on education in a changing world.

New York: Prentice Hall.


Whitaker, T, Whitaker, B, & Lumpa, D. (2000). Motivating and inspiring

teachers: the educational leader’s guide for building staff morale. Eye On Education, Inc.


Archer, Jeff.  (1999).  New teachers abandon field at a high rate.  Education week, 18(27), 3p.


Heller, M. P., & Sindelar, N. W. (1991). Developing an effective teacher mentor program.

Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.